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20 Common Illnesses that Kill People in the Developing World

October 31st, 2010


For those living in corners of the world where clean water flows, food sources sit (mostly) safe and inspected on grocery store shelves, and vaccines, antibiotics and prenatal care are readily available, complacency oftentimes clouds reality. When they suffer from diarrhea, they rarely fret over whether or not it signifies their impending demise — so they easily forget that millions across the globe oftentimes perish violently from the exact same affliction. The flu, measles and other "everyday" diseases that leave an American child out of school for a few days can kill a full-grown man in Somalia. Cures exist for many, but political, cultural, economic, logistical and supply issues all hinder the medical professionals trying to quell the global health crises. The following diseases, supported by statistics from the World Health Organization, exist as some of the more easily dismissed (if not outright invisible) in the developed world — yet they cut a fatal swath through the developing. This list purposely leaves off entirely incurable or shakily unpreventable illnesses such as HIV/AIDS, cancer, diabetes and heart disease, as all of those place a massive dent on high-income populations as well. Rather, it focuses on those for which medical solutions or vaccines already exist instead as a means of illustrating divides between different regions.

  1. Malaria: WHO's statistics estimate 247 million instances of malaria in 2008, with roughly a million recorded deaths. The disease is responsible for at least 20% of all childhood deaths on the African continent. Doctors use combination therapies with an artemisinin base in treatment, and a combination of vaccines and insect-proof netting prevent all four strains — transmitted exclusively by mosquito bites.

  2. Influenza: In developed nations, vaccines prevent between 70% and 90% of cases and reduce the risk of death in the elderly by 80%. Most strains are highly curable, and death rates remain low in nations with enough resources to prevent and control outbreaks. However, developing nations must contend with anywhere between 250,000 to 500,000 fatalities year, most of them over the age of 65.

  3. Asthma: Compared to most conditions and diseases out there, asthma kills far fewer people and causes serious issues in developed and developing nations alike. No cure exists for the 300 million individuals affected by respiratory disorder, though inhalers and painstaking care to avoid allergens and other triggers do alleviate some of the problems. In 2005, asthma killed about 255,000 people worldwide, and children in developing nations without the proper mechanisms stand as the most vulnerable demographic.

  4. Lower Respiratory Infections: In 2004, lower respiratory infections killed 2.94 million people in developing areas — making it responsible for 11.2% of total deaths in that particular socioeconomic bracket. WHO's statistics show it as the number one killer. By contrast, developed nations only faced 0.31 million and 3.8% of total deaths that same year. Bronchitis and pneumonia (covered below) usually require antibiotics for successful treatment, which are sadly not always an option in poorer corners of the world.

  5. Pneumonia: This nasty LRI kills more children worldwide than any other disease, with a tragic death toll of 1.8 million, and more people than measles, AIDS complications and malaria combined. WHO believes that 20% of afflicted children do not receive nearly enough antibiotics to counteract the infection. In Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia alone, it accounts for around 85% of deaths yearly.

  6. Syphilis: Two million pregnant women in South Asia contract syphilis every year, with 80% resulting in prenatal and antenatal tragedies. Stillbirths and miscarriages are sadly common, and many newborns enter the world with the disease, a painfully low birth weight and/or some other type of infection. And all this could be prevented with greater access to testing, penicillin and prenatal care.

  7. Cholera: Sanitary water supplies, oral rehydration salts and a supplementary oral vaccine can all prevent this violent digestive disease. Eighty percent of the 3 to 5 million estimated cases worldwide may not have happened were treatments more readily available. Nor, perhaps, the 100,000 to 120,000 deaths. Interestingly enough, 75% of infected people never even develop symptoms.

  8. Measles: WHO considers measles one of the deadliest childhood illnesses that can be easily prevented with a vaccine. It considers South Asia the most afflicted region, as around 220,000 deaths occurred there in 2000 alone; that's 29% of worldwide fatalities. Limited access to vaccines and compromised immune systems greatly contribute to the continuing issue.

  9. Tuberculosis: About one-third of the world's population hosts the TB bacillus virus, but only between 5% and 10% ever grow ill from it. That may sound like a low percentage, but tuberculosis ended up claiming 1.3 million lives in 2008, though the numbers have been dropping. There are vaccines and drugs available to curtail it, but some strains have evolved that resist both — though treatment options exist for them as well.

  10. Prematurity: Even in the developed parts of the world, prematurity still occurs — though hospitals possess enough resources to keep most suffering newborns stable. But diseases and inadequate or nonexistent prenatal care render prematurity and low birth weight one of the leading causes of death in low-income nations. An estimated 3 million stillbirths and 1 million premature fatalities happen annually, with most of the latter occurring within the first 28 days after birth.

  11. Tetanus: Though highly preventable and treatable, 61,000 people worldwide died of tetanus in less than 5 years prior to 2008. Most of these obviously occurred in developing nations with limited medical resources, and neonatal tetanus ranks as one of the disease's most tragic manifestations. 59,000 infants died of the disease in 2008. Though far lower than previous years, WHO's efforts to eradicate it entirely have not yet come to fruition.

  12. Pertussis: Better known as whooping cough, pertussis killed 195,000 children in 2008 — almost all of them living in developing nations. Vaccinations prevented an estimated 687,000 fatalities, but not nearly enough were available to stop the disease entirely. They are also most effective when administered to infants and young children.

  13. Hepatitis B: Even adults who survive hepatitis B as children face a heightened risk of developing cancer or cirrhosis in the liver. About 2 billion people in the world have contracted the virus, with 350 million suffering from chronic symptoms and 600,000 dying yearly. The vaccine available to prevent and fight the disease boasts a 95% success rate, but the usual shortages and logistical issues make it difficult to bring it to those needing it most.

  14. Diphtheria: Even with proper immunization and treatment with antitoxins and antibiotics, diphtheria still kills between 5% and 10% of patients yearly. The highest percentage of fatalities occurs in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, with between 17% and 23% succumbing to the contagious respiratory disease.

  15. Polio: Many in developed nations tout polio as "a thing of the past," but the reality for their developing neighbors is far grimmer. Successful vaccination programs have wiped it out in most of the world, but India, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria still report new cases; so long as it exists, it can spread. Children — the disease's preferred demographic — in 25 countries faced re-infection between 2003 and 2005, with 1 in every 200 cases experiencing irreversible paralysis. Between 5% and 10% of these kids will die of polio when the muscles needed for respiration succumb to it.

  16. Typhoid: Vaccines for this violent water-based infection are available, but it does not provide full coverage. Education and improved public health remains only way developing nations can fully prevent the 17 million instances of typhoid occurring each year. Ten percent of cases end in death, though proper antibiotic treatment lowers the number all the way down to 1%.

  17. Yellow Fever: This virus mostly affects tropical developing nations in Africa and the Americas, though worldwide it roughly results in 200,000 diagnoses and 30,000 deaths every year. No definitive cure exists, so survivors have symptom treating to thank, but a highly effective vaccine exists. Within a week, the immunization kicks in and provides prevention with 95% effectiveness for 30 to 35 years. Sadly, environmental, political, economic and public health issues have led to an increase in cases.

  18. Perinatal and Neonatal Diseases: In 2004, statistics show that 3.4% (or 0.90 million individuals) of deaths in low-income nations stemmed from some form of perinatal or neonatal condition. WHO considered it one of the top ten killers that year. Causes do differ from patient to patient, of course, but many of these medical issues come from untreated STDs in the mother. Statistics for syphilis were mentioned earlier, but 10% of fetuses and infants exposed to gonococcal infections will also die either in or shortly after exiting the womb — just to give an example. Providing access to proper prenatal care and any drugs needed to kill infections exists as the best possible solution to the problem, but it is — alas — easier said than done.

  19. Diarrheal Diseases: Considered the third highest cause of disease-related fatalities in developing regions, the various diarrheal diseases kill 1.81 million — or 6.9% of the population – people yearly. Most of these involve microbial contamination with varying treatments and vaccines (if any) depending on the strain. However, ensuring clean water, food and personal hygiene amongst the populace is the only route towards near-complete eradication.

  20. Severe Acute Malnutrition: Most of WHO's statistics regarding severe acute malnutrition revolves around children under 5, the most vulnerable demographic. Thirty-five percent of childhood deaths worldwide come about due to poor nutrition both inside and outside the womb. Not every nation possesses the resources (or, sadly, compassion) necessary to ward off malnutrition in its peoples, which is the only path towards sustained public health. Aid programs and hospitals, however, offer special regimens meant to nurture the afflicted in a safe, humane manner and get them to eat and soak up necessary nutrients. But it's a temporary fix for a much larger, overarching issue.


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